Welsh clubs confident of bumper year

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The Independent Online

The big clubs did not get their British Cup or League, the Wales coach, Graham Henry, has not been able to prune the top 10 clubs to four, and there is still no sponsor for Wales's leading domestic competition.

The big clubs did not get their British Cup or League, the Wales coach, Graham Henry, has not been able to prune the top 10 clubs to four, and there is still no sponsor for Wales's leading domestic competition.

Yet for all that there is an air of excitement and anticipation about the launch of the second season of the Welsh/Scottish League that has not been apparent for many years.

All around Wales season ticket sales have been booming, even the traditional round of pre-season friendlies has seen crowds flock to the phoney wars.

The reigning champions, Cardiff, had more than 7,000 people at their "Battle of Britain" game with Leicester, while last season's runners-up, Newport, have already had 12,000 fans at Rodney Parade for work-outs against Bristol and Leeds.

It appears that many clubs are finally getting their houses in order. If only the same thing could be said of the governing body, the Welsh Rugby Union, which finally managed to attract a sponsor, the Principality Building Society, for its Challenge Cup during the summer, but lost its whole marketing department to a mass walk-out.

And the day after the chairman of the technical committee, Geoff Evans, bemoaned the fact that for a fourth season there would be no league sponsor, it was revealed by the telecommunications company NTL that it had bid £1.5m to sponsor the Welsh national team's jersey for three years and been turned down.

All clubs in Wales cast envious eyes towards the reported £1.8m due to their Zurich Premiership counterparts in England from the Rugby Football Union. Hence the desire to supplement the Heineken Cup with a British Cup or League, or even an Anglo-Welsh tournament. While they may be poor relations off the field, on it the leading Welsh clubs believe they can match their English rivals.

If the Heineken Cup provides the annual proving ground for such boasts, it has to be said that with seven of Europe's élite 24 teams in the 12-strong Welsh/Scottish League - five Welsh clubs and the two Scottish districts - the level of competition is going to be higher than ever before.

Few clubs in Europe will get much change out of a Cardiff side boasting Rob Howley, Neil Jenkins, David Young, the new recruit Pieter Muller, Gareth Thomas, Rhys Williams and Craig Quinnell.

Then there is Gary Teichmann's Newport. Fellow Springbok Adrian Garvey has joined him at Rodney Parade along with Irish wing Matt Mostyn and Wales lock Ian Gough.

Add that trio to Shane Howarth, Peter Rogers, Jason Jones-Hughes, Rod Snow and the Fijian captain, Simon Raiwalui, and it is easy to see why hopes are so high for a real resurgence by the Gwent club.

Cardiff begin their defence of the title at home against Neath, boosted by the return to the club of Wales's most capped forward, Gareth Llewellyn, from Harlequins, while Teichmann takes his team to Llanelli hoping for a repeat of last season's league double over the Scarlets.

Scott Gibbs and Arwel Thomas will be hoping to scheme a win for Swansea at Pontypridd, while Ebbw Vale, under the guidance of the former Leinster and Ireland A coach, Mike Ruddock, head to Scotland to meet the Reivers.

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